Tuesday, 17 November 2015
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
Rent Supplement Scheme Administration
63. To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection her views on the adequacy of payments under the rent supplement scheme, given the increase in rents nationally and that approximately 1,500 children are living in emergency accommodation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40184/15]
Primary responsibility for the provision of emergency accommodation rests with local authorities, as the Deputy well knows. The Department’s role with regard to homeless persons is mainly income maintenance.
Rent supplement plays a vital role in housing families, with the scheme currently supporting approximately 63,000 people, at a cost of €298 million in 2015. Properties are being secured under the scheme, with over 17,200 rent supplement tenancies awarded this year. A review of rent limits earlier this year found that the impact of increasing limits at a time of constrained supply - we all recognise that the problem is constrained supply - would increase costs disproportionately for the Exchequer, with little or no new housing available to recipients. Rather than increasing limits, rent supplement policy will continue to allow for flexibility where landlords seek rents in excess of the limits for both existing customers and new applicants. The circumstances of tenants are considered on a case by case basis and rents are being increased above prescribed limits, as appropriate. This flexible approach has assisted approximately 4,700 households nationwide to retain their rented accommodation.
In addition, the Department, in conjunction with Threshold, operates a special protocol in the Dublin and Cork areas, where supply issues are particularly acute, with plans under way to extend it to Galway city. It should also be noted that under the exceptional needs payments scheme, assistance may also be provided towards rent deposits or rent advances, with over 2,100 payments made this year, at a cost of €1.1 million.
These measures and the reforms in the private rental sector announced last week will provide increased certainty for both tenants and landlords in the current market. I am continuing to keep the matter under close review. This work is ongoing in the Department.
I agree that the main underlying problem is supply. The Minister of State has mentioned flexibility and that rents can be increased above the cap limits on a case by case basis. I think he mentioned a figure of 4,000 cases in which that had been done.
There are over 64,000 people in receipt of rent allowance. The difficulty is that while supply takes time, there are 1,570 children living in emergency accommodation. They have no place to play or do their homework and are without any of the facilities one needs to enjoy a normal childhood. Rents nationally are in excess of 20% above rent supplement levels for a typical property. In urban areas the gap is wider, up to 40% in some cases. Does the Minister of State agree that, while controlling rent increases may assist some people at risk of losing their homes, it will not do anything for those who are already homeless?
I thank the Deputy for acknowledging the work of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, in seeking to provide rent certainty. That will help to stem the number of people in rental accommodation. At least, they will have rent certainty for the next two years. Fortunately, the measure will prevent people from becoming homeless.
We all rightly have grave concern about children living in hotel accommodation. However, as far as we can see, before they became homeless, the vast majority were not actually living in rent supplement accommodation. There are a number of measures being introduced by the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly. Deputy Willie O'Dea might, therefore, be better off asking him a parliamentary question.
It is certainly to the forefront of his agenda. In addition to providing rent certainty, there is flexibility in respect of the allowance and the HAP system operating in Limerick, which has been quite successful, and several hundred new tenants being dealt with through the HAP. This is a priority and we are working diligently to make sure that we have results as soon as possible.
Perhaps this question is better addressed to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. Why has there been no increase in the HAP cap levels in Limerick because we have a severe problem there? There are 5,500 people on the housing list with about 40 houses available for renting as I speak.
Focus Ireland, which is at the coalface of this problem, issued a statement in the aftermath of the Government's package. It said that, "The package risks not stemming the constant flow of 70 to 80 families a month losing their homes and becoming homeless in Dublin alone. This problem is also rising now in other major cities nationwide such as Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford". Rent supplement has not been raised in three years despite rents rocketing by 30% to 40% in this period. We need to close the gap between this payment and actual rents. These households need an increase in rent supplement now to keep them in their current homes.
Many voluntary groups such as the Peter McVerry Trust have welcomed what the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has done in respect of this issue. As the Deputy knows, the HAP is operating in Limerick and is working well there. I understand there are 960 HAP payments in the Limerick area, of which 510 are for new applicants. I would like to ensure that nobody is in danger of becoming homeless but there is flexibility within the rent allowance scheme. The HAP allows for an uplift in respect of that. Significantly, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has given 100% mortgage interest relief to landlords where they commit to accommodating tenants in receipt of the HAP or rent supplement for a minimum period of three years. This will keep a number of units within the process. Of the 960 HAP tenancies in place in Limerick, approximately 450 transferred from rent supplement with the remaining 510 cases being new applicants. In many ways, the HAP is working well in Limerick.